Friday, July 3, 2015

Email question: Thinking about a property, how do I evaluate it as farmland?

I got a question on email from someone who's looking to purchase some farmland; they're not looking to develop it or build a house, but would like to grow things.  

Here's what I would do when I'm looking at farmland I'm interested in purchasing or leasing:  

First, To get an idea of what the area will support, look at the land surrounding the parcel; it's likely that the soil and conditions for your parcel will be similar.  So if they're growing hay, it's a fairly safe bet that you can grow hay; or berries, or whatever it is they're using it for.  Recognize that the people who own that land have probably spent some time (years... decades...) finding out what works, and whatever it is that's what they're doing.  If you're going to be doing exactly the same thing with the land that they are it's a safer bet that you'll have decent results.  

Second; put your boots on and walk the ground.  Are there conditions that look different on the parcel -- more or less wet, different types of soils, rocks or vegetation?  Whenever there's a change in vegetation that usually is a clue that the conditions there are different in some way.  A different band of soil, seasonal flooding... something causes that difference.  Ask around and see what that might be.   In the area that I'm in the only farmland left at decent prices is in the flood plains, and anytime you're there there's risk of floods.  Check with the neighbors to see how often it floods, and how deep, and for how long.  Most of the time floods don't matter to annual farming -- a flooded corn field after the corn is harvested is no big deal -- but it will affect perennial crops or things like orchards.  blueberries can tolerate a bit of a flood.  
Bring a shovel on that trip, and a 5 gallon bucket.  Collect 1-2 cups of dirt from 3 or 4 locations that represent the entire parcel.  Strip the vegetation out, and mix it all up in a bucket, and have a soil test done.   It'll cost you about $60 and take a week or 10 days.  They will ask you what you want to grow, and they'll give you a report that says "to grow pumpkins on this ground you need..." and give you fertilizer or amendments and amounts that they reccomend.    In this area Skagit Farmers supply in conway does tests; contact your local agricultural extension or conservation district for someone near you.  

For the parcel that I was asked about I'm going to guess (because of my experience with the ground in that area) that it's acidic soil with a fair bit of peat in it, and a relatively high water table.  Those conditions are pretty darned good for things like cranberries or blueberries, but to grow crops like pumpkins my guess is that you'll need to add a lot of lime to bring the soil PH in line.  
Your local conditions will vary, and a soil test will tell you what you need to know.  

Finally, a 1-acre garden, intensively cultivated, will be quite a bit of work - more than a full-time job for one person; if you're contemplating buying more than that, you're going to need some sort of equipment to help you farm that ground.  I can't say what that might be -- depends on the crops you plant -- but you may be able to horse trade a little work with the neighbors; they bale  your hay in return for half, or for a per-bale fee, something like that.  

These are just my thoughts on this; I'm sure that they would love to hear more thoughts from others.  


Unknown said...

Really, really, REALLY talk to and listen to the locals. When they say that the growing season is 90 days~ believe them. They know what they are talking about.

Rich said...

If I was buying farmland, I'd study the soil survey for the area to get a better idea of what the potential of the land was. NRCS has soil surveys available online at:

The soil surveys I've looked at detail potential crop yields, suitable uses (cropland, hayland, pasture), permeability, etc.

You will need to know the specific soil types on the land you're interested in buying or renting which is usually available online or at the NRCS office (I've been using

Once I'd studied all that, I'd get a proper soil testing probe, take dozens of samples in each "zone", and run soil tests on some of the different soil types to get a better idea of what I would be working with.

All that is easier said than done at times, but when you are planning on spending as much money as land currently costs, I'd rather know as much as possible before I spent my money.